Q&A with former Daily News baseball writer Paul Hagen
If you make a living playing, coaching, scouting, broadcasting or writing about baseball, and the people from Cooperstown want to recognize your life’s work, you are doing something right.
Paul Hagen is still doing something right. After working at the Daily News for close to a quarter century, Hagen continues to write about baseball for MLB.com.
But Hagen became one of America’s finest baseball writers in Philadelphia, a city that’s not shy if it does not like you and a city that can be tough to outsiders. But Hagen matched the intense passion of the Philly fans with his great storytelling and wealth of knowledge about baseball, and specifically, the Phillies.
Hagen’s career will be recognized today in Cooperstown, where the National Baseball’s Hall of Fame induction weekend begins with the presentation of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award. It’s an honor bestowed by the Baseball Writers Association of America annually since 1962 to a writer “for meritorious contributions to baseball writing.”
It’s the highest honor a baseball writer can receive.
Hagen, a Buffalo, N.Y. area native who came to Philly from Texas by way of San Bernardino, Calif., has covered 26 World Series and 31 All-Star Games. Before he headed up to Cooperstown, Hagen sat down with the Daily News for a Q&A session about his life in baseball, which included being honored in Clearwater, Fla., this spring at his favorite hangout, Frenchy’s.
Q: What was it like having Hall of Famers (Pat Gillick, Ryne Sandberg) show up to your Clearwater party (which was called “Hagenfest").
Paul Hagen: [laughs] It was surprising. I didn’t know Ryne Sandberg all that well, so for him to show up and not only show up, but participate and hang around for a long time and really be a part of it was just unbelievable. I’m not a huge autograph guy but I did as him to autograph my shirt and have my picture taken with him. That was kind of cool.
[Editor’s note: Hagen introduced “Sammyfest,” an annual toast-turned-party to honor the annual visits of former Phillie Juan Samuel a long time ago. But when Samuel returned to join the Phillies for the 2011 season, Sammyfest was no more. So several other writers kept it going by renaming it “Hagenfest.”}
Q: Is Juan Samuel OK with the fact that you stole his party?
Hagen: Probably, since he’s showed up at the two we’ve had! Sammy knew Sammyfest was there for when we never saw him, it was a chance for people to come see him. So we agreed when he rejoined the Phillies we’d have one final Sammyfest and frankly, at one level, I’d hope we’d not have to have another and he stayed with the Phillies for the rest of his life.
Q: Your name will be in Cooperstown on Saturday until forever. How cool is that?
Hagen: The cool part is that I would expect to have grandkids someday and future generations, and if they’re baseball fans and they go, they can say, “Hey, there’s great Uncle Paul” or “Great, great Uncle Paul.” So I think that’s the part that really – forever is a hard concept to grasp. But I’m 62 years old. I’m not going to be around forever. I’ve never thought too much about leaving a mark or anything like that, because, you’re a baseball writer. I don’t know if you think about things in that vein. But to have a little something there in Cooperstown, which I think is a very special place, yeah, that’s nice. It’s nice for future generations.
Q: Do you have a favorite Hall of Famer?
Hagen: Well, the guys that I’ve covered. Ferguson Jenkins, I covered him for a few years in Texas. Loved the guy, I think he’s great. Rich Ashburn of course. How can you not love Rich Ashburn? I feel I know Ryne Sandberg a bit more now, so him. Just guys you’ve been around – I covered Bert Blyleven with the Rangers and saw him throw his no-hitter in Anaheim. So I’d say guys I covered and knew a little bit, that’s more than just a plaque, it’s someone you can see and say hello to.
Q: Favorite player as a kid?
Hagen: Pee Wee Reese. Although he was retired by then, that was a book I read, “The Peewee Reese story.” One of those kids biographies. So I became a fan of his and a Dodgers fan as a result. And many years later, covering the Phillies for the Daily News, we’re in Los Angeles, at Dodger Stadium, and I had to ask Rich Ashburn a question, so I went down to the broadcast booth and walked in and he’s in there sitting there talking to Pee Wee Reese. So I got to meet Pee Wee Reese. I didn’t spill my whole story to him, but year, to meet him was very cool.
Then a few years ago I was in the mall and they were having one of those memorabilia shows, and there was a guy with a bunch of signed baseballs, and again, I’m not that much into autographs, but he had a Pee Wee Reese ball, so I had to buy it.
Growing up, I grew up outside of Buffalo, they didn’t have a major league team and my team was the Dodgers. It was more the Buffalo Bisons, guys like Pancho Herrera, Bobby Del Greco, Art Mahaffey. They were a Phillies farm team at the time. Kind of interesting how it turned out. Guys like that were the ones I followed. Bobby Wine, too. And I’d see him every now and then with the Phillies, so that was cool.
Q: What drew you to baseball?
Hagen: My dad (Daniel Hagen) was a high school athletic director, so I was around it, around sports. I had a little interest. And really what got me going was finding the book, “The Pee Wee Reese Story”. I always liked to read. And then another book I read: “The Fireside Book of Baseball.” It was a compilation of some of the best baseball writing up to that time. And I was just intrigued by it: long features, game stories, poems, cartoons, essays. It really didn’t just increase my interest in baseball but in writing (too). You could see all the different things you could do as a baseball writer, all the ways you could write. I think that helped me both in enjoying baseball and in being a writer and having an interest in that.
Q: Do you remember your first major league game?
Hagen: Twins at Orioles. Old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. I was 10 or 11. Probably ’62, ’63, somewhere in there. I remember the popcorn came in a little megaphone. So when you were finished eating your popcorn you had a megaphone. My cousin and I decided that we would holler things at Jim Lemon, who was playing for the Twins at the time. You know, creative stuff like “Sour Lemon.” As I recall, he hit a game-winning home run late in the game. If I ever met him I’d ask him if he remembered that and if that’s why he hit the home run, to shut these kids up. (Editor’s note: Paul’s first game was on April 25, 1962. Lemon hit a 2-run home run in the ninth inning of a 3-1 Twins victory).
Q: Do you have favorite ballpark?
Hagen: Now I haven’t been to the new Marlins ballpark and I haven’t been to Minnesota, those are the two I’m missing, but of the ones I’ve been to I think Pittsburgh is the best. It’s just fabulous. But my favorite is probably Wrigley, just because of the history – and it’s in Chicago! When you walk out, you’re in Chicago! San Francisco is right up there – beautiful ballpark in a great city.
Q: Do you remember you’re the first game you covered for the Daily News?
Hagen: Opening Day in Atlanta, in ’87. High hopes. High hopes that year. Phillies had finished second a year before to the Mets – 21 ½ games behind the Mets as I recall, but still finished second. A lot of intrigue that offseason: they signed Lance Parrish. A lot of high hopes and they weren’t fulfilled. (Editor’s note: The Phillies lost that game, and began the season 1-8).
Q: How about the most memorable game you covered?
Hagen: Just from a sheer drama point of view, it’d have to be Game 1 of the ’88 World Series. Kirk Gibson wasn’t supposed to play; he hobbles up to the plate and hits a home run off Eckersley, who was untouchable at the time. ... That changed that whole series. … I’ve never seen a more dramatic home run or one that changed what would follow as much as that did.
Covering the Phillies, Joe Carter in ’93 was very memorable. Because of what it meant… and what it meant personally from having followed the team all year. The Phillies had been way behind in that game, came back to take the lead and then to lose it like that. … And it was a Saturday night and I didn’t have a paper the next day. And it was late. So I got a 6 a.m. flight back home the next morning… and I’m working on no sleep. And as soon as I got home I was doing follow-up stuff. I wrote 5-6 stories as I recall, got Mitch (Williams) on the phone, had him talking about how he wanted to come back; (general manager) Lee Thomas saying, “Well, we’ll see.” I think if there’s one day in my Daily News life that I was proud of, that might be it.
Q: What’s your favorite story you wrote at the Daily News?
Hagen: There were so many, it’d be hard to choose. … But there was one I didn’t get to break. It was in 1989 and the Phillies were on the west coast. We’re in San Francisco, a Sunday, get-away game and the next day is Memorial Day. No paper. I go to the game, watch it, keep my scorebook as I always used to do. The game ends I go to San Diego to be ready for the game the next night. I get to the Town and Country Hotel – none of the other writers are there because they had to cover (Sunday’s game). I wander in to the hotel bar, see some Phillies people in there. One looks at the other and says, “Should we tell him?” the other says, “Sure, why not – Mike Schmidt is going to announce his retirement tomorrow.” I was halfway off the stool before I realized – no paper (the next day). No internet. No tweet. No blog. No nothing! [Laughs} There was nothing. Nothing I could do about it.
Q: Do you have a favorite player to talk to during your career?
Hagen: It’d be hard to pick one. I always enjoyed talking to Scott Rolen, although most of what I talked to Scott about was understood it was just background or just conversation (not on-the-record stuff). Doug Glanville, a guy who was very intelligent and you could talk to anything about, always found him very interesting. Billy Sample back in my Rangers days. He’s coming to Cooperstown. Rico Brogna – one of the nicest people you’d ever want to meet. Dale Murphy – when he first came over to the Phillies I was thinking he can’t be as cool as people say, I was prepared to be disappointed, but never was. I hate to mention names because there are probably at least a half dozen I’m leaving off. You come to value the guys who respect your job. I had a good relationship with Krukkie (John Kruk), we did a book. And you know? Lenny (Dykstra). Lenny, for all of his faults and all of the troubles that have befallen him since he got done playing, and he could be difficult, but he got the media better than anybody I ever met. He would come out with stuff. [Paul tells a story of trying to track down Dykstra after the All-Star outfielder got in a car accident. Paul tries to track him down for days. On the day Dykstra finally answered the phone, it was a Saturday]. I said “Lenny, you know why I’m calling, I have to ask you about what happened the other night.” And he said, “Sure, dude. I’ll talk to you. But I got to ask you – why do you want to do it today, you don’t have a Sunday paper.” The guy was almost killed four days ago!
Q: What do you like best about being a baseball writer?
Hagen: Baseball? No, I’ve always been a baseball fan. It’s been my favorite sport my whole life. I just think baseball is endlessly fascinating. One of the oldest clichés – but truest clichés – is every time you go to the ballpark you may see something you’ve never seen before. And it’s really true. Every season. That’s what I liked about being a beat writer. Every season is like a soap opera; it’s going to take twists and turns you don’t expect – for good or for bad. I’m just fascinated by it, and what I love about baseball is the approach to being a successful baseball player is I think I great approach to being successful in life. It’s not about being great today and then terrible for the next two weeks, it’s about being consistently as good as you can every day. You have to play a game every day and you have to live your life everyday. Don’t get too high, don’t get too low. All of that stuff – consistency, commitment – all of that really applies to life.
Q: Favorite writer growing up, or when you were a young writer?
Hagen: I’ve had a lot of good fortune in my career. One was I got a job in San Bernardino, California, pretty much right out of college. … I graduated in June ’73 and by Feb. ’74 I was working in San Bernardino, which is like 70 miles inland from L.A. So I had the chance to read Jim Murray, the great columnist from the L.A. Times everyday, he was obviously ‘the guy.’ Also Mel Durslag of the old L.A. Herald Examiner, baseball writers there like Jeff Prugh and Ross Newhan, who is in the Hall of Fame now. So I got to read him and see how he worked in the press box. One of the things I remembered about him is he always had a piece of paper next to his typewriter. And it said, “Gamer, Notes.” And any time something happened in the game that he wanted to mention, he’d make a little note of it. So I stole that, I stole that immediately. So you remember. And also little things like how you report in the clubhouse.
Then after I was there for 3 years I got the opportunity to go to Texas and cover the Rangers, I went to work first for the Dallas Times Herald. And I’m not ashamed to say that my journalistic hero is Blackie Sherrod, the legendary Texas columnist. For some reason, Blackie took a liking to me. He had a big glass office in the back of the sports office. And every once in a while he’ll duck his head out and call out to me. And I’d go in and he’d just talk – I learned so much. Just from listening. And he always had a way of telling me things without lecturing. One time he said to me, “You know, I’ve been reading this novel. And I really like it. Something about the writing. I couldn’t figure out why, but I went back and counted and there was no sentence longer than 11 words. In the whole novel. I really liked that, I thought it made the novel flow.” I didn’t figure it out until I left the office, but he was telling my sentences were too long – use a period every now and then!
Q: Is it easier to cover a good team or a bad team?
Hagen: I think in terms of difficulty, they’re about the same. With a bad team, you don’t have as many people hanging around, so you kind of have the field to yourself, and frankly, bad teams often yield good stories. The downside is a lot of times you’re sitting there working your butt off and you’re writing stuff that you think is insightful or good, but you no nobody cares! So, the good thing, when you’re covering a good team, you at least know there’s somebody out there is going to be reading it and cares.
Q: Will they be serving Frenchy’s grouper sandwiches in Cooperstown this weekend?
Hagen: I don’t know, but Frenchy is going to be there. I don’t know if he’s bringing any grouper burgers with him.
Q: How many people do you have going?
Hagen: I did a guest list today (for a Saturday night event the Hagen family is hosting) and it had 123 names. Now that’s not all people coming for me, there are people from the Hall of Fame, writers that will be up there covering. It’s nice. I have friends in California who are flying in, neighbors… it’s pretty nice.